Syrians Want Freedom and Dignity
The continuing Arab spring is not a conspiracy (as some governments claim) but a moment in history with deep social and economic roots. It is a new Arab Awakening (nahda), a tsunami caused by a collision between the Arab youth bulge and the rigid political systems of the Arab regimes. This tsunami, and the rigid, authoritarian systems based on cronyism, are Arab exceptions that do not exist elsewhere.
In the Arab world, the sons and daughters of an older baby boom are now entering the job market. This is a huge challenge to any government. In Syria, the number of newcomers to the workforce is between 250,000 and 300,000 a year; yet on average there are only 65,000 jobs to fill, most in the informal sector. The unemployed, those with menial jobs and those frustrated at not having the economic means to start a family are all asking, loudly and courageously, for freedom and dignity. The problem is not just demographics, it is double-digits unemployment, women’s low participation in economic life, massive migration from rural to urban areas, and informal employment (allowed to become the rule).
The map of the uprising in Syria reflects all these factors. The young are now the majority of population, and they want real change, not half-hearted reforms; they believe their authorities – for decades stable and rigid – have not and will not be able to meet the challenge of the tsunami or profit from its energy or transform its young from a liability to an asset. Their call is no longer just for social reforms: it is for dignity, empowerment (which will allow them to shape their future) and a proper appreciation of the human value of each individual killed, wounded, tortured or humiliated.
The other Arab exception is the regimes themselves. Both kingdoms or republics have been exceptionally stable, some for as long as four decades; during that time they have erected a non-accountable body higher than the state institutions – a power structure based on family or clan, wielding control, through security services and pre-state tribal allegiances, over elections, government, public institutions and the army. As in the Gulf states, these power structures have dominated state institutions, and weakened them. The major tool for this domination is money, in particular the control of revenues. In Syria, these activities come from oil, as in the Gulf, from real estate operations, as in Dubai, and from mobile phone revenues. Behind them lie family names: Traboulsi or Matteri in Tunisia; Moubarak or Ezz in Egypt; Al Saud in Saudi Arabia; and in Syria, Makhlouf or Shalish. This is crony capitalism. It does not permit dignity or freedom of speech or accountability.
The present tsunami is calling for the removal of the power structure that envelope the Arab states. It first hit Tunisia, then Egypt. As one of the countries which gave birth to the original Arab Awakening in the 19th century, Syria could not hope to escape this second nahda. The first spark came in Damascus; a minister swiftly put out the fire. The second came in Deraa where young kids, influenced by the images they saw on Arab TV channels, wrote “People want regime change” on a wall. They were jailed and tortured by the president’s own cousin, Atef Najib. Their parents demonstrated, asking for their release; they were fired on. The spark of the tsunami had been lit.
It could have been stopped from spreading if the president had led the way, just by having Najib filmed in handcuffs. This did not happen. Instead, we had a public speech on conspiracy. That showed the core of the Syrian crisis: young people on one side, the president’s family and rigid power structure on the other.
The crisis has since escalated. Different regions of Syria have joined the uprising in support of Deraa and Hauran, forgetting their own grievances, as demonstrated especially, and brilliantly, by the Kurds. When the crackdown came on those demonstrations, other regions joined in and the slogans became more radical. But, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian uprising has no leadership: it surpasses all the existing forms of opposition, organised or not, inside the country or abroad. The uprising has built up a coordination network within the country, working with a few personalities whom it respects, but without links to many of the oppositional elements abroad. Against this uprising, the Syrian power structure created all kinds of allegiances, manipulating and spreading fears of Salafist jihadists and sectarian fighting. It openly encouraged chaos. And chaos came (to a certain degree), and some groups profited from it.
Three months after the crisis began, there is a stalemate. The regime has technically lost. There can be no return to the situation before the uprising. But a new regime, and a new political drive, has not emerged. Even so, the uprising continues, courageously, spreading to different towns and villages; and, for all the anger felt on behalf of relatives and friends killed or tortured, the slogans remain pacific, non-sectarian, and mostly funny. But the mobilisation has not yet succeeded in reaching, in strength, all Syrian communities (which are numerous), as well as the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo; for to do this, the price is high. (Some so-called opposition groups have used the media to make sectarian speeches.) What is needed is a vision in order for all Syrians to join together, not just a part of them or even a simple majority.
The power structure knows it has lost the political battle, but it is still playing the game: choose between me and chaos, me and sectarian fighting, and why not have a national dialogue while I keep my gun on the table, and then we’ll see if I accept the results. The army and state institutions have not yet rejected the “security solution” despite its extreme cruelty, and the example of Libya and the foreign intervention there weighs heavily; preserving the unity of the Syrian people is the chief priority.
Some of the Arab media have played a counter-productive role, exaggerated facts, lacked professionalism, and introduced a kind of propaganda war with the Syrian state and Makhlouf Al Dounia TV. Certain opposition groups abroad, who claim to represent the uprising but have no legitimacy, are equally counter-productive. These groups have turned genuine human rights issues into propaganda for media consumption, used a sectarian discourse or called for foreign intervention, by Nato or by Turkey, a course of action that the Syrian people reject. Beyond their sectarian inclinations, these groups’ agenda is simply revenge, and they need to be isolated. Within Syria, too, there are some groups who have taken up arms against the army and security forces. This is a dangerous departure, which could lengthen the political process, worsen the suffering and fail to produce a good outcome.
This is a political struggle, and can only be won politically, and inside the country. This will take time: it is clear from Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere that the Arab spring will be a long process. In Syria too, we need time to learn lessons, build capabilities, address fears and create the image of a new Syria – a country with strong state institutions, as the basis for democracy, but without a power structure over and above that of the state.
The new Syria, and the political struggle to build it, will have to take into account the country’s geostrategic position based on these points: The equilibrium between communities in Syria is firmly based on strong state institutions, to which Syrians are attached and which play a bigger role than its geography. At the same time, Syria is a corner stone for regional equilibrium. The Arab spring cannot reshape the Arab world by splitting it between non-constitutional kingdoms and weak republics struggling for dignity and freedom; democracy cannot exist just in one or two Arab countries. The Arab Awakening has a message to all Arabs, and even beyond.
The issue for Syria is not to choose between Iran and Turkey, Shia and Sunni, but to develop a strong pivotal role between the two. The Sunni-Shia divide has been exaggerated in order to separate Saudi Arabia and the Gulf from the rest of the Arab world, and put an end to the awakening in Bahrain and the Arabian peninsula.
Syria should neither follow nor forget Europe or Russia or China, but continue to build, with Egypt and Tunisia and other Arab countries, a new grouping that acts within the world community for the benefit of its people. Syrians are grateful to Europe for defending their human rights and freedoms, but their credibility would have been greater had they worked harder for the rights of Palestinians, denounced Israeli war crimes in Gaza and urged the return of the Golan Heights.
Syrians will not agree to any kind of military intervention: what they need is political support for the new awakening. They know the road ahead is still full of sorrow and ambushes, and the price for their freedom and dignity will be high. But they are willing to pay it, for they know that they will prevail.